In an interview, The Descent director Neil Marshall said that three of his favorite horror films influenced this one – Deliverance, Alien and The Shining. While not technically considered a horror film, Deliverance brings the terror of the Appalachian woods, which is where The Descent takes place (well, technically, under them). Alien shares its claustrophobic spaces with little light, and The Shining follows another’s descent into madness. After watching The Descent again recently, I’d agree with this triangle, and all I’d add to it is blood. Buckets and buckets of blood.
The premise is simple — send six friends into a system of underground caverns on an annual adventure trip, turn out the lights, add monsters, shake and bake. All six happen to be women, though the film really doesn’t make that big a deal out of it. It’s all about what happens when humans encounter terrifying creatures in pitch darkness. There are tears and recriminations, fracturing of the group (and bones), past sins are brought to light and new ones committed. The Descent grips the audience in its downward spiral and I think our main questions are going to be – how scary is it actually, how much of the scary is monsters vs. location and, finally, which ending is better? Let’s hash this out.
Intro by Jessica
Spoiler alert: We get into the nitty gritty of this film, including two different endings. Not like it matters really. It’s still a wild ride, even if you know what’s coming.
Jessica: My history with this film is a little different than others, because the first time I watched it, I was not a horror film fan at all. At all. But it was playing on campus for Halloween, and therefore free, and we were bored college students, so there you go. That’s really the only explanation for me having seen this, and looking back, I’m still surprised we all went, because we were strictly Harry Potter/X-Men types and horror was not our forte.
ANYWAYS it make a pretty big impression on me, for obvious reasons (see above mention: “buckets of blood”). And it was not the film that turned me into a horror fan. But now that I am one, I was eager to go back and see what I thought of it this time around. Conclusion: It was awesome.
I have a lot of things about this film that I want to discuss, but let’s just get one of the big ones out of the way first. This film is almost entirely girls. The only males we see are Paul– Sarah’s husband, and just at the beginning, before his head is exploded by a pipe– and some male crawler creatures. The rest of the group are women, but they’re pretty diverse and the film doesn’t make a big deal about “hey look it’s all girls!” They just get about their business, like any group of adventurous girls would. And I would say you kind of don’t even pay attention to it until you make yourself. I didn’t think it affected how I viewed the film during the film itself, mostly my thoughts afterward. What about you? Did having all those boobs on screen distract you too much to pay attention to the plot?
Phil: Well, like most guys (and girls), my first reaction to the all-female cast was pretty standard: I picked the cutest girl and spent plenty of time ogling her, until she died (poor Beth). I think it’s the same thing a lot of dudes (brahs, chads, etc) do when they first walk into a high school classroom, and when I first saw The Descent, I was about 17 years old. Plus, all of these ladies happen to be badasses, so the attraction scale went through the roof.
But I never thought much about gender once the film kicks into high gear. It’s one reason this is one of my favorite (yep, biased) horror flicks. It swallows you in — the claustrophobic cinematography, the dynamic cast, the parade of cringe-worthy escapes from cave-ins and chasms and creatures. Think that’s too much alliteration? Pick one “c” and we’ll roll with it.
Jessica: I think that this film just lends itself towards alliteration, for whatever reason. I’ll start with the cave-ins. In my notes I wrote down my three favorite scenes, and one of them was the cave-in at the beginning. It’s so stark and spare and perfect. Sarah’s in the back of the line as the girls wiggle through a really tight channel (I’m not a spelunker (and never will be, especially after this film!) so my spelunking vocabulary is a bit limited/made-up). She gets stuck and starts to panic, so Beth turns around (impressive) and goes back for her. They’re both lying on their stomachs, their headlights shining in each other’s faces, and Beth is talking down a hyperventilating Sarah. It’s scary enough, but then, there’s this rumble and a big rock shifts right above their heads. Their conversation stops, they both stare at the rock for a second, then Beth tells Sarah to forget the bag she left behind and they scramble like crazy, making it out just as the cave collapses. There’s just something about that second, when the rock shifts, where you can see the “we’re fucked” expressions on their faces. It’s raw and real and my heart was legitimately pounding. This whole situation — lost in an unknown cave system with no help coming and the only known exit sealed — would be bad enough WITHOUT mutant cave creatures to deal with.
Claustrophobia is a big part of any caving movie (those are a thing, right?), and it definitely added to the terror and the trapped feeling. I think it also helped develop the characters. In the interview, director Marshall pointed out that each character has a highlighted or breaking point. He used Holly as an example. Aboveground, she’s happy-go-lucky, kind of a punk, but goofy and brash. But when they get trapped, she flips out, yells at Juno and then goes and gets her leg all broken because dammit, there’s always one! My notes say “oh Holly, definitely predicted you’d be the first to die.” She’s bold above ground but loses it when things get real, whereas others (like Sarah and I’d say Sam as well) do the opposite. I mean, everyone loses it, but to different degrees. What are some favorite scenes, or moments that stuck out for you?
Phil: One of the best early scenes comes long before anyone realizes that Juno led them down an unexplored cave, when the group has to string a line across a chasm about 40 or 50 feet wide. Way too far to jump, but there’s a crag that runs the entire length of the cave ceiling above. The ladies reach the ledge, give each other a few “dammit” looks and looked like they’re about to turn around. But hell no! Becca (the gung-ho daredevil) steps up to be the first across. This requires fist grips, where Becca reaches up through the crag, clenches her fist tightly, and then hangs her entire body weight from knuckles against bones while clipping into the anchor. It’s a heart-pounding scene, and it comes about 30 minutes in, long before things really go topsy-turvy.
So Jessica, if that description of high-level spelunking didn’t make you want to give it a try, nothing will. Anyway, The Descent made such an impression on me because every part of the group’s journey feels dangerous. Most horror relies on finding terror in the everyday — Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, most vampire and all zombie movies — but The Descent begins with an inherently dangerous activity. Before the film even begins, you know these characters are at great risk.
But here’s the kick: they’re badasses. It’s a brilliant bit of characterization, and one that works just as well as John Carpenter’s clueless, sleepless high school students. Director Marshall introduces us to a group of tough and talented females right away. Even though we, as seasoned horror viewers, know that shit will eventually hit the fan, we (again as seasoned horror viewers) are thrown off by a competent group of main characters.They aren’t masked murderer fodder — they’re a force to be reckoned with, and we see that as early as Becca crossing the chasm. Just too bad she’s the first to crack when the trip becomes more than an adrenaline rush.
It’s one reason the terror in this film hits so hard. When did you personally feel most afraid for the characters?
Jessica: Yeah, spelunking is badass, it’s just a big nope for me. I’m not claustrophobic normally, but … still no. So it definitely cements the fact that these aren’t your typical people getting trapped in this situation — they’re competent badasses, which makes the crawlers even scarier because they’re more than a match for them, at least in the beginning.
While the cave-in scene was scary, I think the scariest one was their first encounter with the crawler. I remember back to when I first saw it, and Sarah gets a glimpse of it and runs to tell the group “I saw a man” and “maybe if someone is down here they can help us,” even then I was like Girl, NO, you just saw a monster you need to get out. And then I’m vindicated just a short time later when the creature does make a closer appearance, behind the shoulder of one of them and it’s fucking terrifying and after it jumps away they’re all screaming and one of them turns to Sarah and yells “That is not a human being!” DUH.
It takes out Holly pretty much immediately after that, as she’s the weakest, but I give Juno credit because she just jumps right on that thing and starts kicking its ass. At that point everyone flips out and runs their own direction into the dark and that’s when I was like oh fuck, they’re done for now. I don’t know much about spelunking, but I’m pretty sure that “don’t run off into the dark away from the group” is a big rule. Even if that group is currently under siege by mutant cave people. Safety in numbers!
This brings me to one of the most terrible moments in all of cinema, in my opinion, because I remember it devastated me so much when I watched it, and that is Beth’s death. Beth is awesome, she is my favorite even from the beginning, and she runs up to Juno (who has just finished battling two crawlers) and Juno whips around and stabs her ice pick right into Beth’s neck. It’s brutal and terrible and just, man, when I saw that the first time I couldn’t concentrate on the following scenes and it remained with me long after the movie is over. That is just the epitome of unfair, and I think so many movies don’t show the obvious danger of friendly fire (zombie movies, I’m looking at you). I think it emphasizes the madness and wrongness that everyone is descending (heh) into, and is a symbol of how they cannot go back. I am on Juno’s side a little bit with it, because she was just fighting for her life and Beth didn’t say anything as she approached her from behind, but Juno then backing away and leaving Beth there, bleeding and reaching her hands out, is pretty damn cold.
Once everyone was split up, they were all dead in my mind, save the final person, if there would be one. When I first saw the film, I actually missed the first part, with its implications of the Juno/Paul affair, so I assumed Juno would be the final survivor, because she was the leader and really took on the crawlers without any hesitation. Watching it now, I definitely liked her character less, but I’m conflicted, because she’s also awesome, but not, but yes, agh. I like that the characters are complex. Who are your favorites/least favorites?
Phil: Before I jump into that, I’m curious — you weren’t a horror fan when you first caught this film. Beth’s death isn’t the most gory thing in the world, but it stuck with you because it came in a flurry of insanity and craziness and chaos. Did it have the same effect this time around?
Jessica: No, I wasn’t, like I said, it was kind of a fluke that I watched it to begin with. It wasn’t the gory aspect of Beth’s death because, as you said, comparatively, it wasn’t that bad, even in the movie. Mostly it was the shock that she was killed by her own friend, when death is literally all around them, it’s just this mistake that brings her down, and I think it was the most horrifying thing of the whole film. This time around, I knew it was coming, so there wasn’t that shock factor at all, I was actually bracing for it, and I think I understood a lot more of the subtext because, as I said, I knew that Beth knew about Juno’s infidelity, and Juno leaving her there suddenly made more sense, that she was a somewhat irresponsible person. So the first time it was shock and horror and WHAT JUST HAPPENED whereas the second time it was like oh, this is almost worse, she’s leaving her there, crap. Very different. (And I was also paying more attention to what was happening, because my heart hadn’t stopped this time.)
Phil: Gotcha. It’s funny you say that Juno is probably the most frustrating character, because these days, I see her as the female version of Shane from The Walking Dead (except this was released before then, but nevermind that). They’re two of my favorite characters in recent horror fiction, and it’s because they’re understandably vile. Juno, like you said, is probably the toughest of the badass spelunkers. Sure, she’s also responsible for getting everyone lost and fucking up Sarah’s life, but that’s just how things go sometimes. Juno wanted Paul, and she wasn’t going to let her best friend Sarah get in the way. So, in the name of plot structure, Paul and Sarah’s young daughter are skewered by rebar in the first five minutes. It’s the way of the world.
Now, that opening can seem overly dramatic or convenient or whatever, but even in the world of a horror movie, it adds believable tension before the group even enters the cave. Shaun Macdonald and Natalie Mendoza, the actors who play Juno and Sarah, respectively, are incredible. The sense of uneasy friendship is palpable from start to finish, and when the Crawlers start picking off the remaining ladies, I was convinced that Juno and Sarah would both live. Sure, it’s cathartic for Juno to finally meet her just demise, but this film just never felt that predictable.
To be honest, it’s no surprise that Marshall was influenced by Alien. Not only does The Descent mimic the claustrophobic hallways of the Nostromo, it also builds characters who are real and believable and yet totally unpredictable. I guess Holly was pegged as the first to die because, well, she’s just too cool for her own good, but like you say again, everyone seems doomed from the start. I had the same sense for all of Alien — I knew someone had to live, because major motion picture and all, but I started to doubt that after too long. Even when Ripley is the lone survivor, I was never quite convinced that she would live. The film felt too bleak for that.
The Descent is the same way. This film is bleak and spare (nice word by the way), and it builds tension organically with strong characters that effortlessly break stereotypes. Before we get into those last 30 minutes — so much to discuss — I was wondering if you ever felt like this movie was slipping. Did it ever drag, or pull any slight of hand that we’re overlooking?
Jessica: I’d say it’s paced pretty well, actually. One could argue that, since it’s a film about cavers fighting cave monsters, there’s not much point to the beginning plot, but like you said, having that foreknowledge definitely affects your understanding of the main characters and their motivations, and sets up the tension before they get into the caves. When I first saw it, having missed the beginning, I was a bit annoyed at Sarah for causing Juno’s death, but this time around I definitely get it. I mean, I don’t necessarily support it, but I get it.
The caves themselves afford plenty of obstacles before the Crawlers show up, and then after that it’s pretty much nonstop action, so I’d say in that respect it’s pretty strong. I’m sure there are some weaknesses, but nothing’s really coming to mind at the moment. That’s why I liked it so much, even having seen it before, I definitely jumped several times and had moments of genuine fear.
Oh man, those last 30 minutes though. Where do we start?
Phil: Agreed. I’ve seen this one about 20 or 30 times at this point, and I still haven’t found many glaring weaknesses. The biggest flaw I’ll get to it in a sec…
Well, let’s start at the beginning of the end, a little while after Juno sticks Beth in the neck. At this point there aren’t many characters left, and to reach some kind of exit, Sam ends up back at the chasm. She has to cross again — luckily the anchors are still set — and this time, there’s a horde of Crawlers on their tail. She’s rushing and clamboring, and of course that can’t be good because the cave is anything but stable. The cave is also the Crawlers’ home, and they’re in hunt mode. One leaps onto Sam as she’s crossing the hole, turning her throat into a dangling blood fountain. Pretty gruesome. And then there are only three: Rebecca, Sarah and Juno.
This is where the film becomes a legitimate horror show. Sarah wanders into the main Crawler village, if that’s what you can call an underground pool of blood lined with carcasses, both human and animal. By now, most of our characters have minimal or absolutely no lighting, which would be absolutely fucking terrifying in a real cave. When you’re underground, there really is no light — it’s total darkness. The cinematography comes as close to possible, and one of the most iconic scenes (for me at least) is when Sarah emerges from the blood pool a la Willard in Apocalypse Now. It’s on par with the blood elevators in The Shining, or the first appearance of the Xenomorph in Alien. Nothing quite compares to the hillbilly rape in Deliverance, but the sense of animality I get from the Crawlers and their abode strikes a primal chord. It’s a gruesome bit of set design, and even though it wears its influences on its sleeve, it turns them into something new and different.
Then the final confrontation between Juno and Sarah. Thoughts? These two animals (maybe a deliberate parallel?) are survivors, and they’ve got beef.
Jessica: The final confrontation is one of my favorite scenes, especially this time around (keeping company with the initial cave-in I mentioned earlier, and Sarah emerging from the blood pool). It has a couple of layers. On the surface, it’s two badass chicks who are taking on a group of terrifying Crawlers. They’ve both racked up several kills already, and they’re ready to throw down, and you definitely feel like they might survive this.
Then you’ve got the confrontation between Juno and Sarah, and at this point, Sarah has learned not only that Juno killed Beth, but that Juno was having an affair with Paul — two revelations that would be sanity shattering enough on their own, let alone while you’re trapped in a cave and hunted by mutants. Her crazy eyes show her state of mind, even after she’s pulled Juno up from nearly falling, and I think Juno can sense it too. It’s very creepy.
When Sarah sticks Juno in the leg, effectively killing her by disabling her as more monsters come forward, was the big shock moment for me this time around (compared to Beth’s death last time) because I had forgotten it, and it does sort of parallel the Beth scene in some ways. Sarah does it so deliberately, and Juno knows, and the audience knows, but the best part is, the film allows us to share this silent knowledge without offering any stupid dialogue explaining what we already know, which makes it more powerful.
I kind of feel like Juno lets Sarah take her down a little bit though, maybe through guilt about Paul and Beth. She earlier tells Rebecca and Sam that she won’t leave without Sarah (though they’re certainly willing to, and I don’t blame them), and then she definitely could have fought back even after being wounded, but she lets Sarah walk away and prepares to fight the oncoming Crawlers. Though you could argue, if you saw the U.S. ending, that the decision to kill Juno ends up haunting Sarah, which is its own form of punishment.
What was your favorite part of their battle, and which ending do you think is best?
Phil: I never thought of it before, but you’re right — it feels like Juno lets Sarah get her revenge. Again, she feels like Shane. She’s a survivor with a sense of respect, but she’s also a realist. She can’t possibly believe that Sarah will live, and so she might as well let fate run its course. (Unfortunately, the cash-in sequel really screws with the bleak fatality of Juno’s demise and Sarah’s “escape.” But that’s for another review.)
Or at least that’s how I read Juno’s end. Now, when it comes to endings, I’ve always watched the U.K. version, which Jessica tells me is the director’s preferred ending. Shortly after crippling Juno, Sarah crawls over bones and blood toward an improbable beam of light. She emerges on the forest floor, finds the group’s car, and hysterically speeds away.
The first time I saw this film, I thought that scene was the biggest weakness. I thought Sarah was getting away — an absolutely improbable ending for one hell of a dire film. It’s how Alien ends, and in all honesty, it’s one reason we have so many Alien sequels. Well, that and sci-fi technology. But still, Ripley doesn’t quite escape. She’s alive, sure, but she’s drifting aimlessly through space — a black abyss no different than a cave.
Cheesy, I know, but I’m getting to my point with The Descent. The original ending doesn’t shy away from hopelessness. Back to Sarah: As she speeds away, she pulls to the side and breaks down crying. After a few beats, she sees Juno, screams, and is thrust back into the cave.
There was no light. There was no escape, no drive in the sun. She’s still in the cave, and the film ends as Sarah watches her dead daughter blow birthday candles on a pearl-white cake, a recurring vision the film uses at key moments. It’s a poetic ending, and I preferred it to the U.S. version. And you?
Jessica: The first time I saw the U.S. ending, and it seemed pretty typical and actually didn’t surprise me that much. I didn’t know there were two, so I was surprised when I was watching it this time and Sarah woke up back in the cave. It’s definitely a bleak cap to a bleak, hopeless film. In the behind-the-scenes feature, the actress playing Sarah describes her character not so much coming full circle as “more of a spiral,” which is perfect. The whole thing is a descent, not only physically, but into craziness, chaos and fear, and Sarah really embodies that. She hears the whispers of her phantom daughter throughout, even when they are above ground, so it’s not surprising that the situation and the cave brings that out.
One thing I liked about the shorter ending is that I do like a survivor, but as director Marshall said in his interview, it’s more like the ending to Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the original, because even though (Spoiler) the girl survives, you can tell that she’s definitely mentally scarred by the experience, possibly beyond the point of return. Which is true of Sarah, as evidenced by 1) she was immersed entirely in a pool of blood! And 2) she sees a bloodied Juno, which people could argue is a ghost, or that Juno made it out, or that her mind is punishing her for what she did, etc.
I guess the longer, bleaker ending works best, as far as looking at the film as a true descent into hellish dimensions. Although there is a tiny bit of sort-of hope, in that Sarah is smiling at the end, envisioning being together with her daughter once more. So that’s a tiny bit of happiness I guess. You gotta take what you can get in these situations.
So despite all the craziness of Beth getting killed by her own teammate, and the extreme bleakness of either ending, I come away with one thought in particular — we need more films like this. A lot more. Roughly 50 to start.
Phil: Oh hell yeah. The more I think about it, the more I realize just how much I seek out films like this. It was inspired by The Shining and Alien, two of my other favorite flicks, and all three manage to hit the right notes at the right time. Well, not so much manage as carefully construct a world with believable characters who are confronted with two terrible, horrible forces no one quite understands: physical threats (Crawlers/the xenomorph/Jack) and psychological threats, usually brought about when fragile characters are placed in the worst circumstances.
But it’s kind of hard to capture that lightning in a bottle, that perfect combination of visceral horror and debilitating fear. I would’ve wrote that movie already if it were easy. What draws you into movies like The Descent?
Jessica: Well it’s not hard to see why Alien and The Shining are so popular and considered icons of the horror world. I’m curious why The Descent doesn’t get as much distinction. Maybe it’s because it was lower budget. Maybe it’s the gore factor (I mean, Alien has its gross-out moments, but POOL OF BLOOD, so, yeah). Maybe it’s the lack of star power attached to it. But putting them close together like this, they have such similarities.
I have been trying recently to put my finger on exactly why I’m drawn to horror films, especially since this is a recent-ish development (about six years ago, maybe?). I think it’s the same reason why I have always loved action films. You mix tense plotting with excitement/fear/adrenaline, which causes extreme reactions in the viewer. I like to be moved by things, riled up by them, and horror films, GOOD horror films, really do that. But the key is that the good ones mix the adrenaline/action with plot. And while The Descent has a fairly simple plot, it makes up by being heavy with character complexity, which pushes it the extra mile, in my opinion.
In short: more, please!